published Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

SoCon may be headed for dramatic finish

The race for the Southern Conference football championship couldn't be much tighter with just a few weeks remaining in the season. It's a situation that surely puts a smile on commissioner John Iamarino's face.

"I think we're set up to have a great stretch run," he said.

With its win at Appalachian State last week and Samford's loss at The Citadel, the 23rd-ranked University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (7-2, 5-1) has a half-game lead over No. 22 Samford (6-2, 4-1) and No. 15 Wofford (5-3, 4-1). Also lurking is Furman (4-5, 3-2), which is coming on strong late in the season.

"We appreciate Citadel's help in having that great win against Samford," Wofford coach Mike Ayers said during Tuesday's SoCon teleconference.

Adding to the drama for the three one-loss teams is that they all control their fates. If the Mocs win their final two league games -- against Wofford on Saturday at Finley Stadium and next week at Samford -- the title and automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs is theirs. Samford and Wofford have three games left, and either gets the rewards if it wins out.

Or there could be a mix of wins and losses down the stretch and several teams could share the title. Last season, Wofford, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State all finished at 6-2 and shared the championship.

Making matters more intriguing, none of the top three teams has an easy finish. UTC will face the two teams right behind it; Wofford plays UTC, App State and Furman; and Samford closes with Furman, UTC and Elon.

It looks like a strong finish for a league that got off to a rough start, going 6-11 against other FCS leagues, including 2-6 against the Big South.

"People are complaining about this league, but I think it's stronger than people give it credit for," UTC coach Russ Huesman said.

The SoCon's football stature took a hit even before play began with the announcements earlier this year that App State, Georgia Southern and Elon were leaving for other conferences in 2014. That news, combined with those early losses, had the league looking like it might be heading in the wrong direction.

"We've always felt pretty good about what our football's going to look like," Iamarino said. "I think we've always had confidence that this group of schools is going to be competitive and is going to compete for championships."

Georgia Southern and App State aren't eligible for the SoCon title this season, but they were the preseason picks to finish with the best records in league play. Instead, they both have 2-4 records.

"Yeah, we're going to miss Georgia Southern and we're going to miss App, but there's nothing wrong with this league," Samford coach Pat Sullivan said.

The SoCon has added three new schools: Mercer, East Tennessee State and Virginia Military Institute. Mercer and VMI will begin SoCon play next season and ETSU will start in 2016. Mercer, which brought football back after last playing in 1942, is in the Pioneer League this season. The Bears, under former Furman quarterback and coach Bobby Lamb, are 8-1 overall, 4-1 in league play.

"We've all been very encouraged by what we've seen, not only on the field, where they're having success ... but also off the field," Iamarino said of the Bears. "The enthusiasm in the community, the crowds that they've had -- I think they're going to be a great addition to the conference."

A conference that is finishing much better than it started in 2013.

Contact John Frierson at jfrierson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6268. Follow him at twitter.com/MocsBeat.

about John Frierson...

John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...

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